Writers are eternal students. Our minds play host to a rich variety of subjects, albeit for the time period necessary to complete any given project – after which we file away that mess of knowledge under the heading, ‘Useless Facts’, only to be exhumed for the purposes of future story threads and pub quizzes.
Research is temporal to a degree then but none the less essential. How can you enslave your readers with a believable story unless you ground it in reality? Yet all too often, a new writer will make the fatal error of embarking on a story without any real knowledge of setting, plot or characters. In short, they opt for the ‘easy’ route.
Earlier this year, I attended a QandA session featuring some of the UK’s foremost fantasy authors. Towards the end of the session, an erstwhile audience member stated that he was making a conscious decision to write fantasy and SF because ‘You get to make shit up’. The appeal of the genre, he claimed, was a writer’s ability to get away with little or no research…or as I interpreted it, blue murder. Because here’s the rub. A writer needs imagination, needs it bubbling over like an effervescing witch’s vat. But forgo the research necessary to ground an idea and the writer’s imagination is as intangible as frog’s breath.
Let’s take a writer of unholy genius, Clive Barker (‘Weaveworld’), and his epic fantasy series for children ‘Abarat’. The land of Abarat is a strange world populated by queerly fantastical creatures. Given the imaginative nature of this work, is it really likely that Barker paid any attention to research? Wasn’t his Clive Barkerdom sufficient? Not so. In fact, Barker dedicated a serious chunk of energy to the groundwork supporting the novel. In his words, “I made a list…(of) really important influences: Terry Gilliam books; ‘Time Bandits’; ‘Fantasia’; the ‘Cirque du Soleil’; Ray Harryhausen movies; ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’…the joy for me, when I got to the book, was I could see where all those were – I could see, I could smell ‘Wizard of Oz’ around the book and ‘Cirque du Soleil’ and ‘Fantasia’.”
It may be argued that what Barker is describing is not research but influence. In this instance at least, Barker’s work ethic focuses less on his enslavement to the internet or local library than preparation of the mind. But this is still self-analysis undertaken in the name of research – i.e. if a writer does not take the time to pull apart his/her creative minds and unearth the influences with which they wish to shape a story, all they are left with is a lonely idea – and to quote that ghastly truism, an idea does not a story make.
Other writers take their research to a more physical level. Nicholas Royle (‘Antwerp’) explores abandoned buildings as a means of creeping under the skin of contemporary urbanism. Mark Chadbourn (‘Jack of Raven’) worked two hundred feet under ground so that he could get a feel for the conditions endured by coal miners for his debut novel ‘Underground’.
But to return to the question of intellectual research, Chadbourn also says, “I’ve studied and read about archetypes for years…I’ve had a real interest in psychology and philosophy and there’s lots of areas I dabble in that I think are all linked” to the extent that “I’ve absorbed so much of the archetype information so deeply that I don’t have to think too hard.” The key then is achieving a fine balance between knowledge of your story’s physicality, its setting and soft furnishings, and the detailed research of any aspect you are not already familiar with, something so crucial in the development of plot and characters.
And there we touch on a fundamental element of good quality fiction: character development. To illustrate how this relates to research, lets take a story about a vet and his wife who has Multiple Sclerosis. Disenchanted by her husband’s inability to deal with her condition, the wife has come to the practice to tell the vet she is leaving him. The vet is preparing for surgery on a very old dog; in his mind he assimilates the supposed pointlessness of operating on the dog with his feelings of inadequacy when it comes to giving his wife the physical and emotional support she needs. So here we have a number of the ingredients necessary to render an effective story: a wife’s anger towards her husband (displaced frustration at the limitations of her failing body), a husband’s sense of impotence, and his decision as a vet to fight for the life of a dying animal when he does not have the strength to fight for his marriage. Now what? Forge ahead with the story, pouring out every last trace of empathy and inner emotion? The wiser option is to step back and explore the key questions which will make a difference between life or death for the story. What does the vet’s working environment look like and how does he prepare for surgery? (Watching episodes of Animal Hospital does not guarantee authenticity.)
What is wrong with the dog? What language would a vet use to describe the dog’s condition – this will differ according to whether he is addressing the dog’s owner or his colleagues. What about the wife? The portrayal of an MS sufferer is paramount to the story’s integrity. In other words, how can a reader ever hope to relate if the fabric of the story is poorly constructed and thus floored? The answer is to avoid clichés by taking the time to research a story and its characters, even if the wife is a green-skinned octopus from Planet Droig and the dog an android.
But the notion of characters is a tricky one. No amount of research can teach you how to get at the bleeding core of a character, their ‘humanness’ unless you are willing to open yourself up as a person first and a writer second. Admittedly, you have the option to leave your characters un-fleshed, join the plot-hard ranks of Dan Brown and rake in the green. (Be warned, character superficiality is a trick in itself.) But for those who want their characters to demonstrate depth, another type of research is essential, namely personal insight – and since we cannot relate to every single given scenario, this is where the development of a research ethic is so crucial.
At the opposite end of the writing spectrum, there is the danger to over-feast on stimuli and procrastinate. After all, it is very tempting to convince ourselves that we have not done enough research to start a story. The key here, as to everything else in life, is balance. Flesh out the skeleton of your plot, breathe life into your characters, give them a believable setting in which to interact, and then let your imagination do the rest. It’s a simple recipe.